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Deadball Era

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The Deadball Era (also sometimes Dead Ball Era) was a period in the early 20th Century that was characterized by an emphasis on pitching and defense and had generally, though not uniformly, low scoring (other similar eras, such as the Second deadball era from 1964-72, are also sometimes given the name "dead ball era"). While the exact period that should be described as the Deadball Era is arguable, it is generally recognized to have stretched from the founding of the American League in 1901 to the elimination of the spitball in 1920. The Deadball Era marked the end of the sport's rapid development in the 19th Century and the beginning of relative stability in the rules and structure of the Major League game.

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[edit] Cause

The exact cause of the low offensive totals during the Deadball era is unclear. There were few significant rule changes between 1894, the highest scoring season in the history of the National League, and 1908, the lowest scoring. It thus seems likely that the primary driving force was a change in the way the game was played rather than explicit rule change. Some suggested causes:

  • The one significant rule change that was made was the introduction of the "foul strike" rule. Until 1901 in the NL and 1903 in the AL, foul balls (except on bunts) did not count against the batter in any way. A player could continue to foul off balls endlessly until he saw a pitch that he liked. Some players, most notoriously Roy Thomas, became very skillful at doing so, and the rules were changed to charge a player with his first two strikes on foul balls. This change obviously helped pitchers.
  • Division of pitching workload. A long-term trend in the game has been to divide the pitching responsibility among an ever larger staff, and this trend was apparent during the Deadball era. The number of innings pitched by top starters declined across the era, as did the number of complete games. Since pitchers are normally more effective when they're allowed to throw their hardest and not worry about workload, such changes may have helped pitchers.
  • The spitball. The spitball is a devastating pitch in the right hands, and it first became a serious weapon for pitchers in the Deadball era.
  • Other defaced ball pitches. In addition to the spitball, pitchers developed a whole host of pitches- the emery ball, shine ball, mud ball, etc.- that gave the ball tremendous movement. While deliberately defacing the ball was against the rules, the rule was rarely enforced and pitchers continued to deface the ball.
  • Improved defense. League fielding percentages improved markedly between the high scoring 1890s and the height of the deadball era, as did other measures of fielding effectiveness such as defensive efficiency.
  • Inefficient offensive strategies. Deadball era teams relied heavily on the sacrifice bunt, a strategy that tends to reduce overall scoring. They were also incredibly aggressive running the bases and ran into far more outs on the bases than any modern team. There was also a heavy emphasis on fielding defensively adept players, even at the expense of offensive skills.

Ironically given the Deadball name, dead baseballs probably were not the cause of low scoring. There was no change in the ball's construction between the high scoring 1890s and the low scoring 1900s, which makes the ball unlikely as a cause of low scoring. The ball was changed in 1911, but that change made the ball livelier than it had been in an attempt to increase scoring.

[edit] History

[edit] Background

From 1892 to 1900, the National League was the game's only major league, but victory in the Players League War had deeply hurt the league's financial underpinnings. Wealthier owners were allowed to buy stock from poorer owners, which resulted in substantial cross-ownership. Because the cross ownership was originally intended to help out the weaker teams, it created de facto alliances between some pairs of strong and weak teams. In 1899, several ownership groups decided that it made financial sense to consolidate the best players from their two teams into the larger of the two markets that they controlled. This "syndicate baseball" made a mockery of fair competetion, best exemplified by the hapless 1899 Cleveland Spiders. Stripped of such great players as Cy Young and Jesse Burkett, the Spiders sank to a record 114 games below .500.

After the season, the owners decided to contract the league from 12 teams to 8. Their choices were driven primarily by financial, rather than baseball, success. The four teams eliminated (the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Spiders, Louisville Colonels, and Washington Senators) had poor attendance in the 1898 and 1899 seasons. The contraction was modestly successful- per-game attendance rose by about 20% relative to the previous two seasons- but it left empty markets and unemployed former major league players available for an ambitious potential competitor. Just such a competitor existed in Ban Johnson's newly renamed American League.

[edit] American League War

Ban Johnson was an ambitious executive who saw the contraction of the National League as an opportunity to create a rival major league. In 1900 the still minor league AL hired many of the players who had lost their jobs in the NL contraction. It also moved teams into now vacant Cleveland and, with permission from the NL, Chicago. After the 1900 season, the AL declared itself a major league. It did not renew its acceptance of the National Agreement, freeing it to move into more NL cities and from its agreement to respect NL reserve rights. Teams were placed in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington. Johnson had also compiled a list of players he thought could be lured from the AL to the NL, and all of them with the exception of Honus Wagner were successfully signed to AL contracts.

The NL responded aggressively to the AL's raids. On the legal front, the owners challenged players for violating their contracts by switching leagues. The Philadelphia Phillies, for instance, were successful in winning an injunction against their former star player Nap Lajoie, who had jumped to the Philadelphia Athletics. In practice, though, the injunction did not block Lajoie's defection. Since it was handed out by a state, rather than federal, court, it only prevented Lajoie from playing games in the state of Pennsylvania. Johnson responded by having Lajoie transferred to the Cleveland Blues, so that Lajoie would only be prevented from playing in the Blues' 10 road games against Philadelphia. In addition to the limited effect of such suits, owners were reluctant to press such lawsuits because they relied on the legally questionable reserve clause, which owners did not wish to see challenged.

NL owners also recognized the need to compete with the AL in salary, and offered their players raises to prevent them from jumping. In some cases they counter-raided the AL's teams. The most successful of such raids was by the New York Giants against the Baltimore Orioles. The Giants convinced Orioles player/manager John McGraw (who had fueded with Ban Johnson) to jump in the middle of the 1902 season. McGraw brought many of his best players, including future Hall of Famers Roger Bresnahan and Joe McGinnity with him, effectively cripling the Orioles. The AL forced other teams to transfer players to the Orioles so that they could complete the season.

[edit] Peace

After the 1902 season, it was clear to NL owners that they had lost the war. The raids had driven up player salaries, but the AL showed no signs of giving up. To the contrary, the AL had succeeded in raising its level of play to match that of the NL and its attendance notably higher than the NL. The NL agreed to peace. The two leagues recognized the validity of the other's contracts and territorial rights. The American league was allowed to move its Baltimore frachise to New York, and it accepted the National League's foul strike rule. Finally, a three man National Commission consisting of the two league presidents and one team owner was established to resolve inter-league disagreements.

The New York Giants resented the agreement's granting of permission for the AL to establish a team in New York and tried to challenge it legally. The pretext of this challenge was the case of George Davis, who the Giants had signed away from the Chicago White Sox after the 1902 season. The agreement forced Davis to return to the White Sox, but the Giants launched an ultimately unsuccessful challenge to that ruling in court.

[edit] Prosperity

The new National Agreement launched the major leagues into an era of prosperity and stability. Major League attendance more than doubled between 1901 and 1910. The increased attendance helped to give both leagues a degree of financial stability that had never existed in the game before. After the Orioles moved to New York, no AL or NL team moved for another half century, and no AL or NL team has gone out of business from then to today. This was a marked contrast to the constant upheaval of the 19th Century game.

Teams responded by building the first generation of truly permanent ballparks. Most 19th Century ballparks were built of wood, which limited their size and often their permanence. Many parks were hastily built because the previous park had burned down. The new Deadball era parks used much more durable and expensive steel and concrete construction. The expensive new parks were only possible because of the game's success, and their larger size and improved amenities helped to fuel further growth.

Also contributing to the growth of the game was the modern World Series. Although there was no official agreement to hold a championship, the 1903 pennant winning Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Pilgrims (today's Red Sox) agreed to face each other in a post-season series, which became the first modern World Series. There was no Series in 1904, however, because the Giants refused a challenge from the Pilgrims. The Giants claimed that they refused only because the series still lacked official sanction, though it was more probably because they still resented the 1903 National Agreement. To ensure that no future teams would have a similar excuse, the leagues then agreed to rules governing the World Series, which has been held every year since except when it was cancelled because of the 1994 Strike.

[edit] The Federal League

The peace and prosperity ushered in by the 1903 agreement couldn't last forever. In 1913, a well financed group of owners started a new minor league known as the Federal League. In 1914, the FL expanded into existing major league territories, declared itself a major league, and started to raid major league rosters. The Federal League also launched a federal anti-trust lawsuit against the National and American leagues.

While the Federal League was a well conceived effort, it ultimately failed to establish itself as a third major league. Despite efforts to sign away major league players, the FL never raised its overall level of play to match the established leagues and never attracted an established star player in his prime. At least in part because of its lower level of play, the FL didn't match the established leagues' financial success, either. Finally, the league's anti-trust lawsuit was stalled in court by baseball friendly judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was later rewarded by baseball by being named the sport's first commissioner.

After the 1915 season, most of the FL owners had seen enough. Two of the FL owners were allowed to buy existing major league teams; Charles Weeghman of Chicago bought the Cubs and Phillip Ball of St. Louis bought the Browns. 5 of the remaining 6 FL owners were bought out by the AL and NL owners. The only holdout was the owner of the Baltimore Terrapins, who wanted to return major league baseball to Baltimore. He launched his own anti-trust lawsuit against the AL, NL, and his fellow FL owners. His lawsuit was eventually rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Federal Baseball ruling.

[edit] War and Scandal

Although the existing major leagues were successful against the Federal League, winning had come at considerable cost. Teams had been forced to give lucrative contracts to start players to keep them from jumping to the Federals, while competetion at the gate had driven down revenues.

The game's financial situation was worsened by U.S. entry into the First World War. Unlike the Second World War, when entertainment such as baseball was viewed as a boon to morale, Americans in the First World War viewed baseball as a frivolous, non-essential activity. The 1917 season was played under something of a cloud, and the 1918 season was stopped at 112 games (of 154 scheduled). The 1919 schedule was shortened to 140 games because the owners lacked confidence in baseball's continued success.

In addition to the attendance problems caused by the war, baseball faced a growing problem with gambling. As far back as 1910, first baseman Hal Chase had been accused of throwing games at the behest of gamblers. Although repeatedly accused of throwing games, Chase was allowed to continue playing. The accusations against Chase were an sign of increased interest in baseball by gamblers. That interest was greatly magnified when horseracing was curtailed during the war. (Horses were militarily important, so horses and horse handlers were needed for the war effort.)

The combination of increased gambling interest in baseball, financial retrenchment because of the war, and lack of official response to allegations of corruption led almost inevitably to the Black Sox Scandal. The White Sox had been one of the most successful teams in the game, both on and off the field. Despite their long-term success, owner Charlie Comiskey responded to a poor 1918 season by trimming costs wherever possible. Many of the Sox players felt that they were underpaid, especially when compared to Eddie Collins, who had negotiated a rich 5 year contract during the Federal League war. When first baseman Chick Gandil contacted gamblers about throwing the series, he was able to recruit 7 other players to participate in the fix.

Although many observers at the time suspected that the games had been fixed, those remained suspicions until late in the 1920 season, when conspirator Eddie Cicotte confessed to his role in the fix. All eight of the "Black Sox" were immediately suspended. Although they were ultimately acquitted of any crime in court- there was no law against conspiring to throw baseball games- the conspirators were all made permanently ineligible by new Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

[edit] The End of the Era

By the time the Black Sox Scandal came to light, the Deadball era was already effectively over. While the exact cause of the end of the Deadball era is not entirely clear, several factors are generally agreed to be likely causes.

A crucial factor was the end of the spitball. Fans and players had long questioned the desirability and legality of the spitball, but it remained at least de facto legal until 1919. That year the majors finally resolved to make the spitter illegal, although each team was allowed to designate two of its pitchers as being allowed to continue to use it. The rule was strengthened in 1920, when only 17 "bona fide" spitballers were allowed to continue to use it. At the same time, the leagues tightly clamped down on pitchers' attempts to deface the baseball in other ways. The elimination of spitters from most pitchers' repertoires undoubtedly favored increased hitting.

Also of great importance was the in-game death of Ray Chapman, who was fatally hit by a pitch from Carl Mays. Accounts of the game suggested that Chapman had been unable to see the pitch that killed him because the ball was dirty from continued use. The baseball authorities promptly responded by instructing umpires to replace balls in play any time that they had become dirty enough to present a hazard. Since new, clean balls are easier to hit than old, dirty ones, this is also likely to have contributed to increased offense.

Of somewhat uncertain importance is a change in the way that baseballs were made. Starting in 1919, baseballs were made with a higher grade of Australian wool yarn, and the cores were wound by machine rather than by hand. It's unclear whether these changes had any direct impact on the game. Pitchers of the era were certain that the balls were springier than the old ones and flew further off the bat, but the manufacturers claimed that there was no such effect. Whether or not the ball itself was changed, the changes in construction methods did make baseballs cheaper, facilitating the decision to replace them more frequently.

A final factor was the rise of Babe Ruth. According to this theory, Ruth demonstrated that it was possible for a hitter to be successful by "swinging for the fences" and other players emulated him. While it's undoubtedly true that other players began to emulate Ruth, the theory is questionable both because most of the increase in scoring at the end of the deadball era was driven by increasing batting averages and because scoring levels had already risen dramatically well before any other player came close to challenging Ruth's homerun hitting prowess.

[edit] Additional References

The Dead Ball Era also refers to www.thedeadballera.com a necrology of ballplayers and people involved with baseball maintained by Frank Russo.

[edit] Further Reading

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